Hideous design a byproduct of haste

Last updated 09:50 19/07/2012
Carlton
The new and the old Carlton Hotel.

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Architects need to move away from concrete boxes with glass fronts and give back to Christchurch a present-day take on its architectural heritage, says Rodney Laredo.

Ugliness is unnecessary; it saves nothing and it only comes about through lack of foresight and control.

These are the words of Ebenzer Howard from his book Garden Cities of Tomorrow published in the early 20th century.

In it he highlighted his vision for the future of urban planning by way of architectural harmony and uniformity of design. In the process of weighing up what Christchurch might look like in years to come our planners and architects could do well to ponder the notion of architectural harmony.

If ugliness is unnecessary and saves nothing why are the present school of local architects giving us geometric boxes with glass fronts and sides as design proposals for key city sites. It is high time that the way forward for Christchurch by way of Legoland concepts should be openly challenged.

Have we not got the architectural expertise to give back to this city elements of our lost traditional structures. If we do where are they and where does our council stand on this? Is there not the skill or wit within the council's resource consent process to reject designs that are so obviously hideous and out of place.

Following Howard's first garden city Letchworth, begun in 1903, his ultimate dream was realised in 1920 when Welwyn Garden City was established in the green belt of Hertfordshire 25 kilometres north of London. Ninety years on Welwyn continues to expand echoing the original neo-Georgian architectural look that came off the drawing board of Louis de Soisson who was also engaged to design the city's layout which went on to become an internationally recognised masterpiece.

Ebenzer Howard put forward his ideas to challenge the ruination of urban life by way of ill considered building design. His garden city ethos took him back to the past with de Soisson whose Georgian design style embraced residential, retail and commercial development. Conformity of design has since become a hallmark of Welwyn Garden City's leafy beauty attracting architects and planners from around the world to study an example of town planning that possibly will never be bettered.

In Christchurch we are now led to believe that decorative architecture is out of favour owing to safety. But if the utilitarian look contributes nothing why have it? Must we have carbuncles on sites where much loved friends once stood? For example, consider proposals for the new Whitcoulls building in Cashel St, the Carlton Hotel, Grenadier Harcourts, St Elmo Courts, the BNZ building, the glass walled wedge destined for the Salisbury/Victoria streets corner.

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And there will be more unless we intervene. The list to date show appalling proposals indicating that our architectural fraternity need a shake-up. Designers need to get out of their comfort zones and their cubism classrooms and look closely at what is right for Christchurch and not what's right for their own personal statements.

Modernisitic monsters with decidedly temporary looking walls of glass give nothing to our city's rebuild. Who else would want them? So why should we?

There is a one-off chance here to create a new Christchurch that harks back in a modern way to aspects of our architectural traditions. If it is anchored correctly we will be an international drawcard, like a rebuilt Ypres in Belgium and Dresden in Germany both destroyed in World Wars I and II respectively - now looking again as they once did.

No visitor is going to come here to admire flat-lid concrete boxes fronted with glass panels. Bequests of this type are in no way a gift to our city's future heritage. With flair and imagination Christchurch could re- establish itself as a showcase of worldwide repute providing again the ambience that once was ours.

With a prime opportunity to do just that how on God's earth could architect Chris Prebble, engaged by The Carlton Hotel owners to design ''a really good statement'' incorporating aspects of the historical original on such a major corner site, come up with a container concept only suited for some obscure industrial site on the city's outskirts? What's more, why would the owner accept this missed opportunity and why would the council approve it?

If the look of the original Carlton could not have been copied for safety reasons how come the Heathcote Valley Inn has been replicated so tastefully?

The owner of the new St Elmo Courts is on record lamenting the loss of his original building by defending the faceless design of its replacement. He explains that today it is impossible to build a lookalike from an earlier age. Who is fooling whom?

Owners of prime sites need to look closely at what stamp they intend to leave on Christchurch when entrusting architects with their rebuilds. Being one or two steps ahead by way of researching what has gone before could prevent being sold an inappropriate architectural concept that might be deemed definitive with an irrespective price tag. Control therefore is the all important ingredient for site owners, architects and council or we will end up looking as soulless as Australia's Canberra.

Take, for instance, a two and a half square mile area to the left of London's St Paul's Cathedral known as Paternoster Square. It was destroyed by enemy action during World War II. Control on the three levels just mentioned above went out the window when architect and planner Lord Holford was engaged to spearhead its rebuild in the brutalist cubic concrete glass and steel style typical of mid-20th century modernism.

Holford's plan was a dreadful architectural statement that pleased no-one. It ended up having a life of less than 30 years thanks to the Prince of Wales who in the late 1980s orchestrated a design competition to rebuild Paternoster Square in a more sympathetic style. A take on the neo-classical style was eventually adapted because a strong precedent of traditionally designed buildings had already served London well. Is this notion not good enough for Christchurch?

The fate of our central city hangs in the balance. If badly treated what we get in the future could be as regrettable as Holford's Paternoster Square and about as durable.

Should we be looking offshore for architects who have already acquired the experience in parts of the world where sympathetic reconstruction has played a significant part.

Hank Dittmar, chief executive of The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment in London, mourned the earthquake damage to Christchurch, describing it as one of the world's most characterful and beautiful cities. He also cautioned that in the aftermath of disaster there can be a natural tendency to move quickly and that the character of a place can be lost.

The Prince's Foundation concerns itself in Britain and abroad with heritage-led regeneration through conservation and reuse of redundant buildings that are deemed significant. The foundation works with whoever seeks its help as a facilitator, consultant partner or principal.

James Hulme, its director of policy and research, wrote to me arguing that the prevailing direction of modern architecture has not, except in rare big-budgeted examples, produced a legacy of which we might be proud. Moreover, as a form of style in an age of cheap energy and in an era of resource depletion and climate change it is not an effective way to build.

In particular, architecture of steel and glass presents problems in terms of the embodied energy of these materials (concrete being a close third) and their relatively poor response to climate extremes of heat and cold. Should cities anywhere share a single international style that reflects neither climate nor local precedent, locally available materials and traditional patterns of building? There is also the much ignored question of buildings that share a common denominator of attractiveness, proportion and beautiful detail.

Are our architects throwing design caution to the wind for the new Christchurch. Why did our council members travel to San Francisco looking for ideas and answers following that city's post-quake rebuild? The message for Christchurch was to make haste slowly in terms of salvaging our past. Why has it not happened?

It is all too apparent that much help is needed. One only has to look at the new Carlton Butchery building inspired by architect Kerry Mason in Victoria St topped off with a metallic looking crate. How can such an idiotic structure be acceptable architectural design? All it gets is mocking comments.

Too many of our most beautiful buildings are no longer thanks to earthquake destruction, others that could have been salvaged weren't.

It appears the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has made it too easy for heritage building owners to bring buildings down by overriding the legal resource consent process. The loss of our once fabled ambience can only be returned by sensitive controlled design that not only saves lives but also our architectural reputation.

Safety does not have to be put up as a smokescreen for minimalistic boxes masquerading as the new tomorrow. Christchurch deserves better.

Rodney Laredo is a heritage advocate and a member of the Iconic heritage group.

- The Press

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